College ag group aiding growers against outbreak

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — The Fort Lewis College agriculture department and the Colorado State University Extension office are reaching out to help local growers and public health officials avoid health threats such as the listeria outbreak that officials have linked to the deaths of 28 people.

"We haven't had any problems here, fortunately," said Beth LaShell, a professor of agriculture at FLC and coordinator of the project.

The "Food Safety Begins on the Farm" series is funded by a $30,000 grant from the Western Center for Risk Management Education. The program started with a classroom orientation and tours of several farms in La Plata, Montezuma and Dolores counties.

A related online program sponsored by Cornell University concerning good agricultural practices is designed to keep interest alive over the winter, LaShell said. Several seminars are scheduled over coming months.

The listeria outbreak this summer has been traced to cantaloupe from eastern Colorado. The death toll is the largest from tainted food since 1985 when contaminated cheese killed 52 people.

Avoiding such outbreaks starts with good agriculture practices, said Ian Chamberlain, foreman at Farm I Organics southwest of Durango. The farm, located on a 110-acre conservation easement, has about 1½ acres under cultivation with the remainder leased for grazing.

Connie Kitchens, a professor of public health at FLC, brought a dozen epidemiology and public-health students to visit Chamberlain's operation.

"I want my students to see a farm — where food-borne illnesses can originate — so they gain a broad view of food production," Kitchens said. "They learn about growing, cleaning and transporting produce."

Chamberlain described how Farm I Organics, which grows salad greens, onions and potatoes for the Farm to School program, irrigates, harvests and stores produce. The farm is certified organic, he said.

"We want to maybe double acreage next year and bump up production for schools," Chamberlain said. "There is a huge demand from schools. I think the sheer volume could be greater than what is sold at the Saturday farmers market, at local restaurants and stores."

A government-produced grower's guide notes that since the early 1970s, the increase in the annual per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables from 577 to 718 pounds was matched by a significant increase in food-borne disease outbreaks. Its data suggest:

—The number of outbreaks associated with fresh produce increased.

—The number of people affected more than doubled.

—Three-quarters of the outbreaks were related to domestically grown produce.

—Most of the outbreaks were caused by bacteria, mainly salmonella and E. coli.

Officials are still getting to the bottom of the deadly listeria outbreak.

Food-safety precautions are as important for growers as they are for restaurant personnel and consumers, said Marian Schaub of the environmental office of the San Juan Basin Health Department. Schaub coordinates the department's restaurant inspections.

Consumers always should wash fruits and vegetables, even bananas, Schaub said, because dirty hands can contaminate.

LaShell also listed on-farm practices that help avoid health problems:

—Have a documented food-safety plan.

—Maintain clean soil by proper application and management of manure, regular testing of water used for irrigation and washing of produce and equipment.

—Personal hygiene that includes properly washed hands, appropriate restroom facilities and clean clothes and shoes.

—Clean surfaces that contact food such as harvest bins, knives and tables.

"It's difficult to trace a health problem, an outbreak, for example, to a specific person," LaShell said. "But all growers can be hurt by the action of one."

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